Finalist: 2014 NT Literary Awards, Best Travel Writing
For centuries, Aboriginal language groups met ritually at the Bora Ring, a bush stage in Queensland’s Cape York. Here they’d dance and share cultures. The tradition was revived in the 1970s and for many, the biennial Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival, now in its 20th year, is the diamond in Australia’s festival crown.
Australian Traveller, October 2013
I barrel down the hill like tumbleweed in wind. My feet find a path past towering gums and I brush by onlookers, lined seven people deep, to reach the edge of the Bora Ring. Ten Indigenous men stride onto stage. Applause ignites. A thousand watching faces fall silent. We await the first dance.
Sometimes life hands you an experience so beautiful and mercurial that my job, to press the things I see into words, becomes tricky. I reckon my Darwin doctor – who gave me a flu jab the day I returned home – said it best. “That festival is meant to be ‘the one’. A once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Or maybe it was Pierre, a French-Australian friend and writer who, while waiting in the festival’s coffee queue one orange-lit morning, said, “This is utopia. It’s how Australia should be.”
Held every two years in bushland near the township of Laura, 317 kilometres north of Cairns, the 2013 Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival sees 17 Indigenous groups dance 30-minute sets. It runs for three days in June and attracts 5000 visitors. Half of whom are Indigenous, the other half non-Indigenous.
This ying-yang, black-white balance partly explains the festival’s popularity. It has harmony to it. A mood of sharing. And that takes the event beyond dance that’s performed, and, ho-hum, observed. Here you feel the dances.
As I sit cross-legged before the bush stage circle, I know I’m witnessing something singular. On the festival’s opening night I’d seen groups stomp and sing, shaking up dirt in this very space. Dressed in straw skirts, their heads topped with white cockatoo feathers, they were loud, excited, electric.
These ten men stand apart from the others somehow. They’re laconic, masculine and much more low-key. But it goes further than that.
“We’re the Marrinyama dancers. This is the dance of our grandfathers. First one is an introduction,” says an amplified voice.
Their ankles are fringed with eucalypt leaves. Their bodies striped with feathers. Ochre lines their skin. Bark cylinders crown their heads. I write one word in my notebook. Pride.
“Next one we might do is kangaroo.” A dancer bends his knees, brings his wrists to his chin and gently twitches his shoulders. “Kangaroo,” an elder echoes appreciatively behind me.
Unlike the bigger groups, the Marrinyama men are just that, men alone – unaccompanied by women or kids. There’s seriousness about them, plus a sense of something ancient and private. It’s like they’ve walked through time to dance and share their secrets. (I might have believed they’d done so, if one dancer’s arm didn’t sport a Go Pro camera).
Next they perform ‘crocodile’, ‘dingo’ and ‘fish’ sequences. While their dance is subtle, and in some parts delicate, above all, it teems with intensity. I scribble down a second word. Power.
As they finish up, the crowd breaks into applause. Festival creative director Raymond Blanco grips the microphone. “Never will you experience the diversity of Aboriginal cultures like you’ll find here at this festival. Amazing.”
I follow the men off stage and watch them pose for photos. There’s a dancer who catches my eye. While holding a painted staff, kneeling with his group, he looks extra serious. Determined. Suddenly though, he cracks it. His mouth flips into a beaming, gap-toothed smile.
Speaking with the group’s leader, Lance Sullivan, I discover what makes these men different. They’re from Queensland’s central desert and live fairly traditional lives. They catch fish and hunt kangaroo – with boomerangs strong enough to break legs. Importantly, he says, they still practice circumcision.
“A lot of people are scared of us because we’re the last tribe that still does it. There’s no hospital or shop near us, so it’s tricky.” I ask Lance about his justice system and he points to spear scars on his calf. His fingers trace similar lines on his chest. “These are from initiation.”
Today they wear feathers plucked from emu, duck and turkey. Usually they use blood for adhesive, but this time glue fixes feathers to their skin.
The dances, he says, teach the tribe how to be men, how to fish and how to hunt. “People think we’ve died off. But our lore is strong. We want to keep our culture. We come here to show the world that even though we’re fading, we’re still here. We’re alive.”
This frame, this frozen moment with Lance, shifts something in me. While I’ve long been fascinated by Australia’s Indigenous culture, it’s always seemed like a lake on the horizon. One I badly want to see, but never expect to reach.
Maybe it’s the guilt talking, based on our shared history. But silly or otherwise, Aboriginal culture is something that deep down, as a white woman, I feel I’m not entitled to share, or to learn from.
As Lance talks so openly, barriers fall. Add to this conversation the fierce energy I’ve seen among other groups here and I start to understand not only how enriching Aboriginal cultures are, but that they’re tough and sacred, too. They vary with as much splendour as does our continent – from the tropics to the desert.
As the next performance starts, I walk back to the Bora Ring. As well as ‘bush stage’, this term also refers to an initiation rite into manhood. I’m careful not to tread on its inside, as women are forbidden from doing so, except when performing.
The sound of clapping crescendos and the dust bowl fills with young folk. They’re painted white and each wears strips of red. Performers aged four and up lunge into position, spread knees and outstretch hands. Drum beats thud. Dust rises. The crowds whoops. Like an old school rave party, there’s a ‘build up’ and a ‘drop’. The beat rides right through us.
The group is from Yarrahbah, Queensland’s biggest Aboriginal community south of Cairns. While the kids dance, town major Mama Neal assumes the mic. “We’ve survived. Put your hand up if you love that. We have survived!”
He’s more political than other group leaders and issues a few missives. “We want non-Indigenous people to have second thoughts about making decisions for us. It’s not right. We need the government to take a step back and relax.”
Later Mama Neal says he wants the Laura Dance Festival to promote respect for his people. “It’s an opportunity to have us all come together. White people coming here to learn – that’s a great thing.”
‘Sharing culture through dance’, says festival director Raymond Blanco, is a new focus this year. Previously groups competed with one another, but that led to infighting. “The festival’s more relaxed now that we’ve got rid of the competitive element.”
I look beyond the ring at the more typically ‘festival’ parts of the site: the stalls, the open spaces where kids kick footy, and the marquee where we eat and soak up music after dark. I agree the event does ‘relaxed’ with panache.
It’s late afternoon and the light turns golden. There’s a river below the campgrounds, so I go in search of the water, hoping for a swim. My head’s awash with fresh ideas, images and inspiration. I need to take a breather.
En-route I stop at the info stand. “Any crocs in the river?” I ask. “Well…. ” A volunteer adjusts her specs. “Yesterday we heard there was a saltie down there. Depends on what you’re comfortable with. I’ve been swimming all weekend.”
I hunt for the river anyway. I climb a sandbank stamped with footprints. Then descend upon a thick knot of mangroves. Laughter and shrieks ping from the mint-coloured water. A cluster of Aboriginal kids splash around fully clothed.
I spot a place to perch. “They’re ballsy,” I think. “No fear.” I’m not brave enough to join them, but I sit there for a while anyway. It’s nice sometimes, I reckon, just to eavesdrop on happiness.
In A Shorter History of Australia, author Geoffrey Blainey wrote that Aboriginals and European-heritage Australians came from worlds so polarised, in both a philosophical and practical sense, that the two groups were incompatible. Maybe he got it wrong and all we needed to do was listen.
Here by the water, one eye looking for a saltie’s snout, I’m unsure how I’ll capture the spirit of this story. It’s one best danced, that goes without saying. But these white feet have limitations. They’re more suited to swinging beneath a typewriter. I pull open my notebook. Let’s begin with feet, I pencil. And with finding a path.
The next Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival is in June 2015.
Three fresh Australian Indigenous festivals
Australia-wide there are more than 130 festivals dedicated to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. That number is on the rise, too. In 2013 three new, and rather massive, players join the circuit.
Byron Bay, NSW
Headlined by singers Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu and Archie Roach, this festival is 100 per cent commercial, meaning it stands on its own feet – it doesn’t rely on government grants. The agenda is hugely diverse. On offer you’ll find music, dance, theatre, comedy, film, visual arts and, enticingly, knowledge exchanges sessions.
Alice Springs, NT
Sixteen Central Australian Aboriginal groups come together for this gathering named after the Arrernte (Alice Springs-area language group) word for ‘place’. Themes include desert living, cultural heritage and healing. Its itinerary boasts theatre, film, landscape installations and a concert held in the iconic Todd River bed. Another standout feature: 2000 locals deliver a storytelling performance based on the tale ‘Great Caterpillar Dreaming’.
Hetti Perkins, eldest daughter of the late Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins, creatively directs this behemoth festival. It opens with a parade of young people and features 11 big city days of visual arts, literature, music, performing arts and art workshops. The Bangarra Theatre Group presents ‘Dance Clan 3’ and Aboriginal elders spark symbolic ‘firelights’ outside nine cultural institutions supporting the event.